On the Verge - HRT The Harassed Religion Teacher By Brendan O'Regan
Tapping into my own feelings and listening to some other RE teachers in recent times I'll admit to being at times a Harassed Religion Teacher, getting some consolation in the knowledge that I'm not alone. I don't think I'm on the verge of being burnt out, but I'll admit I get the occasional whiff of something slightly singed or charred. I can still scrape some enthusiasm, I still get a great buzz out of a class that went well, or get enthused when I find a great new resource.
Why do I get harassed? There's the usual stuff we all suffer from - you're just about to show a new video, the machine won't work and you haven't got plan B. The crystal clear picture from a DVD comes on screen but the sound is gone, and as you scrabble through the cables to find out what's wrong you loose the class. As you're about to bring closure to a perfect class (you think but they don't) a bunch of students from TY comes in to do a survey and you tear your last hair out. You hand out the set of Bibles for a meaningful Bible search and some bright spark spoils the moment by drawing attention to a very unscriptural piece of graffiti scrawled on The Apocalypse. Once I was doing an end of year prayer service when a little darling (Hi Denny!) let off a stink bomb. I kicked up quite a stink about that, and the special moment was lost. (Am I whinging too much? Should I throw another Euro in the Self Pity Jar?)
At least you'd expect the students to get up to high jinks or stinks. Getting harassed by colleagues is more frustrating. You know the attitude - if there's anything to be done take them out of religion class - a match, a visiting speaker, a trip to the cash and carry for the tuck shop. It's ONLY religion after all. Those of us pursuing (!) the exam syllabus can offer some defence now, but isn't it kind of sad that it takes the state's imprimatur to give RE that bit of extra STATUS in Catholic schools? More serious is the whittling away at the time allocated to RE, flying in the face of ethos and a rake of policies and ecclesiastical guidelines and requirements. I'm reminded of King Lear's nasty daughters (one, unfortunately, called Regan), always nipping at his heels, trying to take more and more away from their poor retired father. I'm puzzled by the spectacle of RE teachers in Catholic Schools having to fight to retain a decent time allocation for their subject.
I must say I'm disappointed with the level of support we get from the Church authorities. We're out there in the front lines, spreading the faith in hostile territory at times, and at the risk of whinging again, I must say I feel we are more than a tad under appreciated. Every year there's a special "Education in Faith Sunday" (had you noticed?) - a great idea to celebrate our work, but it seems we have to organise the party ourselves. Maybe my experience is untypical, but I've always found it to be a damp squib. One year our RE Department offered to give it higher profile in the parish, but that Sunday had instead been dedicated to the sick. (OK, they need affirmation more than we do, but there are over 50 Sundays in the year). This school year the event was trumped, in Dublin diocese at least, by Accord, formerly the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. Oh well, I suppose if you were a married RE teacher you could pretend you were getting a clap on the back. Of course we don't teach RE for the praise (or the money?) but wouldn't it be nice if our work was recognised a little more? How about a Christmas card from the local Bishop?
Fair enough there are Diocesan Advisors who are resourced with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and their visits to us in schools I always find very welcome and helpful. In one excellent initiative Dublin Diocese offers certification to TY students for the work they do in RE. But worryingly, the Diocesan Advisor's service has been cut back in Dublin, and we started this year without any at all at second level. However, recent ads for new D.A.s in Dublin are a good sign. I must admit as well that last October's RE Congress, supported by officialdom, was a great morale booster.
Increasingly I feel there is an inbuilt frustration in our work, especially at senior level. It seems unnatural to be teaching RE to those who don't want to have anything to do with it, a problem that's especially acute for those of us not doing the exam syllabus. Is that what catechesis should be? Here's an issue that is shied away from, but I'm reluctant to suggest making RE voluntary. This would result in peer pressure taking large numbers out of RE, perhaps leaving non-viable classes, and those who leave all the poorer in educational, moral and spiritual terms.
So, pending more affirmation from outside, how can we lower the harassment and frustration level from within? I thought I'd string together a few random ideas for next school year.
First of all, eat! Having occasional lunches with your RE Department colleagues, take visiting speakers out to lunch (especially Aiveen and Fiona from An Tobar) - you get more of a chance to chat, to get ideas, to realise that you're part of something bigger than your own efforts in RE class. Organise a regular lunch with RE teachers from nearby schools to share resources and ideas.
Pray about it! We're doing God's work, so we'll surely get help. Pray to the Holy Spirit, Blessed Edmund Rice, and Saint John Bosco in particular. They'll know what we're on about. If we're lucky enough to have a Prayer Room in school let's use it for ourselves - slip in during a free period, especially if a tough RE class is coming up next.
If you find certain styles of religion class relaxing use them more often. Personally I enjoy classes where I set the students tasks (e.g. drawing God or designing symbols for concepts like forgiveness) and then rambling among them observing and informally chatting about their work.
Sit back and listen to some spiritual music with the students, and if their attention span isn't so hot try music DVDs to focus them. These can be easily tailored to the themes being covered, by way of introducing, developing or winding up a particular topic. Be prepared to have some of your favourite music sniggered at - you may feel like you're casting your pearls before swine (terrible metaphor for education I know!), but judicious choices of music, and plenty of variety and a little lightening up should help.
I haven't yet heard of an RE Teachers' Pride March, and I'm not quite ready to take to the streets, but shouldn't we have an attitude of pride at least? Regardless of changes in cultural attitudes to teachers (did I hear someone say doormat?) aren't we in a great profession? And in a unique position to respectfully spread the gospel?
Let's look again at King Lear - despite the harassment of those nasty daughters, let us, like Lear, defy the storms of culture and the cynical jibes of some of our students and colleagues and storm our own way into as bright future - "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!…. Singe my white head!".
Originally published in 'An Tobar' journal, 2008/2009.